One year ago, Republicans and many in the press thought the GOP would
pick up three and as many as six seats in the U.S. Senate and securing a new
Republican majority was a distinct possibility.
Alas, Republicans ended up losing every competitive Senate race but three:
Nebraska, Nevada and Arizona. Deb Fischer was the only Republican candidate
to win a Democrat seat by defeating former Senator Bob Kerrey who was trying
to replace Senator Ben Nelson.
Deb Fischer is a DMS+C client.
Deb Fischer overcame significant odds in securing a strong and resounding
In the primary, Fischer barely registered above the margin of error in the
early surveys. The overwhelming favorite was Attorney General Jon Bruning.
Bruning’s campaign account was flush with cash from national donors. He had
the tacit support of the national political establishment including the National
Republican Senatorial Committee. Also, in the race was perennial candidate
Treasurer Don Stenberg making his fourth attempt for the U.S. Senate.
Yet, Bruning seemingly held all the cards and filled the airways with campaign
commercials while leading the field with over 50% of the vote in early surveys.
Then the Bruning juggernaut hit its first stumble. At the behest of the NRSC,
Bruning changed his campaign team. Soon stories of Bruning growing wealthy
while on the public payroll started to surface and his once insurmountable lead
began to erode despite his aggressive media campaign.
Meanwhile, Deb Fischer began to get positive reviews for her presentations in
candidate forums, debates and her shoe leather campaign. Deb Fischer and
Aaron Trost, her campaign consultant and director working with DMS+C, devised
a final six-week strategy for the primary campaign.
We assumed both Bruning and Stenberg would run aggressive media campaigns
over the last six weeks and would be forced to attack each other as Bruning
slipped in the polls and Stenberg saw an opening — which is exactly what
Lacking resources to compete in all four media markets, the Fischer campaign
chose to compete in two: Lincoln and the outstate smaller stations in North Platte and Scottsbluff, which collectively included nearly all of the Republican primary
vote in the vote rich third district. With the addition of limited Omaha cable, these
markets comprised approximately 65% of the projected primary vote.
While Bruning and Stenberg ran typical insider campaigns attacking each other,
we ran an outsider campaign, defining Deb, her story, her ideology and her
conservative agenda to change Washington. With the polls closing and Deb
still trailed by low double digits, we aired our “Bull” spot which defined Bruning
and Stenberg as two lazy bulls attacking each other rather than articulating an
agenda to change Washington.
The Bull spot captured the imagination of primary voters’ angst with politicians.
Combined with Deb Fischer’s strong campaign ethic, hard work, winning
message and Trost’s strong voter ID and turnout program, Fischer upset Bruning
40% to 36%.
The general election brought a new challenge: Nebraska political icon Bob
Kerrey. Kerrey’s political success in this red state defied gravity because his
more liberal ideology was never a salient decision-making point in campaigns
against him. Kerrey rode his war hero status, clever wit and endearing
personality to consistent electoral success in Nebraska. In essence Kerrey was
a high school hero in a rural state that prizes its local heroes.
Though bruised by Super PAC advertising in the primary, Kerrey and Democrats
felt they could beat Bruning’s sophomoric persona and ethical challenges in a
general election. But, Fischer posed new and different challenges for Kerrey.
Fischer’s temperament, ideology and positions were compatible with a majority
of Nebraskans. She could not be painted as a politician and had no connection
to Washington. Her image was very strong after the primary (58%/14%) and she
was viewed as a winner, fresh face and political outsider in an anti-incumbent
To defeat Fischer, the Kerrey campaign focused on three themes: Fischer’s
experience and worldview were inferior to Kerrey’s, Kerrey would continue his
nonpartisan approach to solving big issues while Fischer’s math did not add up
on balancing the budget and would devastate important programs like Medicare
and agriculture, and that Fischer was a ranching millionaire who had worked the
system to her financial benefit while being heavy handed in her dealings with her
neighbors and competitors.
While other competitive GOP Senate campaigns were backed by tens of millions
of dollars in Super PAC and NRSC advertising in the general election, Fischer
was left on her own until the last week of the election. Meanwhile Kerrey’s New York friends established a Super PAC End the Gridlock and spent millions of
dollars in the fall attacking Fischer for taking ranching subsidies, mistreating her
neighbors in lawsuits over land boundaries and making erroneous assumptions
about her plans to balance the budget.
After DMS+C’s introduction commercials for Deb Fischer that the dean of
Nebraska political writers Don Walton called “excellent and effective,” we
switched to an aggressive media campaign that contrasted and countered Kerrey
and his allies’ attacks. We defined Kerrey as a vote for Barack Obama, an
advocate for liberal policies Nebraskans opposed and a career politician who had
abandoned Nebraska values for those of New York City and now fittingly was
returning just to take back his old Senate seat.
What narrowed to a five-point race in the heat of October eventually became
a sixteen-point Fischer victory. Ultimately it was more of a Deb Fischer victory
than a Kerrey defeat. Yet, the resounding rejection of a Nebraska political icon
demonstrated how transparent voters now viewed Kerrey. His twelve years in
New York crystallized for voters that Kerrey was more liberal than the state. He
did not assimilate back into Nebraska. Rather, he just came back and said he
wanted his old seat. His early courting of Harry Reid and statement “Harry can
make me do just about anything,” was a clumsy political miscalculation. Kerrey
and his Super PAC allies personal negative attacks on Fischer came across as
crass and tasteless to many Nebraskans. You could almost see the bulbs going
on, “Hey, this guy really has gone New York.”
In the end, Deb Fischer won 87 of Nebraska’s 93 counties by running a nearly
flawless race. She stood up to Kerrey when she needed to, focused on what
she would do as a U.S. Senator, while always remaining who she was: a smart,
tough, and conservative problem solver.